Waiting Games


Beit Lahem Checkpoint
Originally uploaded by marcynewman.

Visiting the West Bank a few days after the election was really interesting. Many of the election campaign posters were still up on billboards and walls. Most compelling were the posters created by Hanan Ashrawi’s Third Way party. I’ve posted them on my website. Ashrawi’s posters are noticeable because of their purple background. Each poster features a different image: of a woman cooking, of students graduating, of farmers cultivating the land, of unarmed civilians confronting an Israeli military tank, of a child’s hands through a prison window. In Ramallah I noticed that there were fewer Palestinian flags hanging on the walls and more Hamas flags up.

I had many interesting discussions with Israelis and Palestinians over the last two days about the elections. Anger over Fatah’s corruption, despite its solid political platform, was still there even for some Fatah members who are frustrated about the results. Fatah’s platform, which consisted of (in no particular order): 1) water rights; 2) al awda (right of return); 3) return to 1967 borders; 4) removal of all illegal Israeli settlements; 5) Al Quds (Jerusalem) as the capital of Palestine. Certainly these are the primary issues for all Palestinians, but it is the financial corruption, I think, that made people look elsewhere. One friend told me that there was an additional complication in the voting. Fatah, like all the parties, puts out a slate of candidates and Fatah members are supposed to agree to vote for all of them. But a few Fatah people (who have since been kicked out of the party) decided to run for office as independent Fatah candidates. Therefore, when some people voted as Fatah members they split the vote by selecting candidates from more than one slate. Regardless of party membership, most friends I spoke with were worried about social restrictions on themselves or family members (i.e., enforcement of hijab, bars shut down, etc.). The second biggest fear is a loss of funding from the U.S. and Europe, a fear that is certainly understandable given that Congress is already trying to aid. New York Congressman Vito Fossella is trying to champion a piece of legislation in the House of Representatives and South Dakota Senator John Thune is trying to do the same in the Senate. One of the laws on the table is called, “Palestinian Democracy Support Act of 2006.” The problem with this legislation is that while the State Department is promising that humanitarian aid won’t end and that they won’t let any legislation hurt Palestinian people, one big question is: how will they define “humanitarian aid”? Because there are many humanitarian programs, for instance, administered by Hamas. By definition do they get cut out if such programs get integrated into the PA? It seems, as one American friend in Ramallah told me, that the new national pastime in the West Bank is speculation. For people who want to protest this legislation, you can go to the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation website and send a letter to your congressmen and women.

I think the same is true for Israelis, but with a twist. Their speculation seems to be not just about Hamas, but how this Palestinian election victory will affect the upcoming Israeli elections on March 28th. One fear is that the Hamas win will make someone like Netanyahu fan the flames of fear and security and give him a big boost in the polls. And for many people Olmert still seems to be a question mark. I find this all so interesting given that Sharon, for years, was helping to boost Hamas in order to help create a climate where fear mongering was effective in Israel. I wonder if he’s happy now that he got his wish?

One of the reasons I went is because a Palestinian friend is in an Israeli military prison and his trial was supposed to be this week. I went with his mother and sister to the Ofer military base where the trial was to be held. We had to take a service from Beit Lahem to Qalandia, through the back way, of course, because they are not allowed to go the quick way through Al Quds (Jerusalem). I had heard about the changes at the Qalandia checkpoint from news articles since its opening. As I had suspected, it is quite a bit like the Beit Lahem checkpoint leading to Al Quds. Going in there is not much interaction with the soldiers; you merely have to walk through a series of electric turnstiles, and in between because of the electricity they have the ability to lock you inside. But going into Ramallah they seem to be less strict about who enters. I had been anxious to see the work of some Israel Jews who work with ISM, Jews Against Genocide, who had defaced the “welcome sign” which used to say “the hope of us all” and was altered by this group to say “Arbeit macht frei” (work liberates) as the sign outside the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi Germany famously said. Now the sign has black spray paint over it, which you can see from the photos on my website.

We grabbed some food from a small market before moving getting in a taxi, as when you go to the prison you have no idea whether you’ll be able to see your loved one or the trial of your loved one at 9 AM or 6 PM. You just have to wait. And there is no food. When we arrived at Ofer we waited in a fenced-in area, in the brisk, cold morning, for almost two hours before they called my friend’s name and allowed us to go inside. Actually, I couldn’t go inside with them because I’m not family; I waited until the lawyer came and I went inside with him. The fence surrounding us had two entrances, one from Ramallah and one from Al Quds. The one from Al Quds was locked with a chain and a pad lock and this is the gate where lawyers came in. When the soldiers let these people inside they make all of the Palestinians waiting to go inside move all the way against the other side of the fence. This was one of many power plays operating there. I’m not sure who was afraid of whom. Certainly I was afraid of the teenage Israeli soldiers with their M16s. But we were also afraid of them because worse than getting shot would be disobeying them and not being allowed inside to see one’s son, husband, brother. The Israeli soldiers know this and use it in ways that seem to me to be quite unnecessary. While we were waiting I got to meet two amazing Israelis, the human rights attorney Lea Tsemel and her husband, an amazing and important writer in Israel, author of the recently translated On the Border, Michel Warschawski. After my friends went inside and I waited for our lawyer I was able to talk to “Mikado” as Michel is known for a while about his writing, which was very exciting.

When the lawyer showed up I accompanied him inside and found that my friends were still waiting in line for the security check. In the prison you have to go through a metal detector and then put all of your belongings inside a locker. Then you go inside a room to get your body searched. I was told to wear a star of David around my neck to the prison to facilitate my entrance into the facility and the combination of this and may passport meant that I didn’t have to have a body search (for once!), though, of course, my friends did. But I did have an argument with a soldier about whether or not I could bring my book and pen inside with me. Because I knew I couldn’t stay with the family in the big fenced in courtyard, I wanted to do some work; the lawyer had to argue to allow my pen inside. Unbelievable!

The military prison is really just a series of trailers, so it’s really cold during the winter. The Palestinian prisoners don’t stay there; when there is a date for their trial they are put on a bus in the morning to Ofer. I spent the day sitting inside the trailer where all the lawyers sit and wait for their cases to be called in a different trailer. It was fascinating to be in this space for a couple of reasons. First, the interactions between Palestinian lawyers and Israeli soldiers seemed, somehow, genuinely congenial. Second, given the fact that elections had just taken place, these legal experts sat around debating the state of affairs in between their cases. One man, Marwan Barghouti’s lawyer, was very intriguing and sort of led the debate and discussion. The basic consensus was, among all these lawyers, is that they fear changes Hamas will bring especially less money for Palestinians and social changes. But they also said other things I heard quite a bit over the past couple of days: most people did not see themselves as voting for Hamas; rather they were voting against Fatah. There was also a lot of discussion about how Hamas and Fatah must work together.

As I sat inside reading and sometimes looking up from my book to catch bits of the conversation, I kept hearing the sound of chains brushing against the asphalt. I realized that on the other side of the trailer there were prisoners walking by, alongside a fence. I kept wondering which footsteps would be my friend’s. On these trailers that make up a prison I noticed that there are images of justice scales on the buildings with an olive branch wrapped around it. I found it ironic given that there is little to no justice for Palestinians, especially in the courtroom. The outermost wall of the prison is concrete, though only about half as tall as the Annexation Wall around Palestine, which is ironic; the “prison” for civilians seems to have more security than does the place that is holding Palestinian prisoners. And, actually, I found the security at the Qalandia and Beit Lahem checkpoints far more rigorous than at Ofer. Anyway, on this wall there are paintings as if each panel of concrete had a window looking out at a green valley and a blue sky; this is the same exact concrete used alongside part of a highway in Al Quds.

After a few hours of waiting in the one trailer, I accompanied the lawyer to the trailer where the trial would take place. There were two rows of chairs for family members and soldiers watching over us. I got to see my friend walk in with three other inmates for their trials; all four men had the same lawyer so they were brought in together, though tried one at a time (actually, more accurately: postponed one at a time). This was my second time in an Israeli court, though my first time in an Israeli military court. The judge wears a black military jacket instead of a robe here. The prisoners wear brown pants, shirts, and jackets with their own shoes (like the election photos of Marwan Barghouti, who ran for office but who is in jail). All of the prisoners are chained around their ankles and their hands. The trials are all conducted in Hebrew, which is a problem because most of the prisoners cannot speak, read, or write in Hebrew (in fact, one of the serious issues with Israel’s system of “justice” is that its prisoners sign confessions in Hebrew, a language that they don’t understand. The courtroom is very active as the lawyer, judge, and prosecutor speak to one another. The prosecutor is also a soldier and actually typically on reserve duty like the one in the courtroom this day; what this means is that he has no idea about the details of our case or anyone else’s. I think this has something to do with the postponement of these cases. In between all of the legal, official discussion, prisoners try to speak simultaneously to their loved ones, which makes things loud as this means five or six conversations may be happening simultaneously. After the fourth prisoner left the courtroom, his brother tried to shake hands with him and six or seven soldiers rushed to the back of the room and pounced on him, pushing him against the back wall. Then another soldier left the room and ran after the prisoner who tried to receive a slight token of affection from a relative. This is not allowed in the courtroom or in the visiting areas: no physical contact, affection, anything for prisoners while they are in jail. For anyone who is interested on the subject of the Israeli military court system, Lisa Hajjar’s Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and GazaLisa Hajjar’s Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza is phenomenal.

I thought a lot about the various kinds of imprisonment that exist in Palestinian lives, especially as I left yesterday morning. I decided to leave through the Beit Lahem checkpoint because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find a service or a taxi in the place I usually go, through a gap in the Annexation Wall where there is no checkpoint. I went through the prison-like structure and I was appalled to see new aspects of it since last month when I was there. For one thing, there is yet another electric turnstile added to the area, making it eight, eight little prisons you are locked into as you move through the facility. But I think the thing that was most horrible there was the brand new, enormous, colorful poster hanging next to the watchtower on the Apartheid Wall (see picture above). The contrast between that image and what tourists or Palestinians with Al Quds IDs experience inside is dramatic; it is like putting a Disneyland sign at the entrance to a prison. I walked through the electric turnstiles, metal and luggage detectors without much of a problem. At the eighth and final turnstile, however, when I had to show my passport everything changed. My passport was taken from me by the soldier behind the bulletproof window and I was locked into a small room that resembled a bathroom stall. I was kept there for fifteen minutes until they moved me through another series of electrically controlled and locked doors into something that resembled a gas chamber. Both the exit and entrance doors were a few feet thick, made of metal, and controlled by some computer inside; a human being cannot open these doors. Once inside there was a lazy teenage girl soldier who made me take off my clothes and open each one of my bags for her, empty out the contents, and hold each item up for her. Now, I was returning after a trip so I didn’t just have a backpack or a purse; I had both of those plus a suitcase. The ground was filthy. The room was freezing. And it was very small. There was barely enough room to move around and no place to put my belongings without ruining them. It was not only humiliating, it was deeply aggravating because the teenage girl talked to some friend on the phone the entire time and would ask me to do something and then look away and make me wait. I had to argue with her a few times to get her to get off the phone, which she never did, or to pay attention, which she also seldom did. Thus, it took me a good 40 minutes to an hour to get through this checkpoint/prison system.

Certainly I was expecting such treatment at the Malak Hussein/Allenby Bridge, but not there. But yesterday wasn’t my day. Because at the bridge I also experienced trouble again. More than usual. I was taken aside by security and moved through the entering lines of people coming into Palestine. I had to go through the usual: metal detectors, that scary, bizarre machine that spits air all over your body from head to toe while filming you. And, then, of course is the ever so lovely body search. But yesterday it was more elaborate than usual. Yesterday I was subjected to a cavity search. Yes, that’s right. For being on a list in the Israeli computer system (a list, by the way, the Israeli Occupying Forces won’t admit exists), for participating in a non-violent demonstration, six months later I am still subjected to these things as I’m viewed as a security risk. I’m not sure what they thought I had inside of my vagina; of course there wasn’t anything there. Maybe they were looking for the photos I took at Qalandia (for which they locked me inside two electric turnstiles for 20 minutes). But those were in my purse and easily accessible to them. Frankly, I don’t think that there can be a real reason for what they did to me. It is inexcusable. Not because it happened to me; rather, because they do this routinely. Indeed, the older Palestinian woman in the stall next to me was going through the same trauma, which frankly I think is a kind of rape, because she had a hip replacement surgery and there is metal inside her body. I took comfort when this woman’s daughter came and yelled at the security staff for their ignorance and inhuman behavior.

As I sat there for three hours waiting for them to decide what to do with me because even after the cavity search they made me stay there and wait, I thought about Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem. This is the famous book where she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” because Eichmann was such a technocrat; “he only followed orders.” And, indeed, when I would ask the soldiers why they were keeping me, what did they want to know all I heard from these, mostly teenage girls, was “I don’t know. I’m only following orders.” But I don’t know if I can seriously say after experiencing this invasion of my body yesterday, an invasion that I’m all too aware happens to many, many, many Palestinians on a regular basis (and Israelis who work with Palestinians, too, I learned on the bus home) it’s not banal. It’s just evil.

Salam—

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